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Fighting Tooth & Claw : Ingrid Newkirk's Combative Style And Headline-grabbing Stunts Have Shaken Up The Animal-rights Movement

March 22, 1992|HOWARD ROSENBERG | Howard Rosenberg is The Times' television critic.

In 1980, after Newkirk and her husband had ended their childless marriage, Pacheco entered her life. Then a political science major at George Washington University, Pacheco had once studied for the priesthood and had spent months as an animal-rights activist in England before returning to the United States and volunteering at the pound, where he met Newkirk. "She was very sharp, very bright, really unique and remarkable," says the boyishly handsome Pacheco, 33. "She was a fast learner who could see through things and get right to the point."

Newkirk credits Pacheco with lifting her to another level of consciousness, especially by introducing her to "Animal Liberation," by Australian Peter Singer, who argues that all creatures have equal title to the earth and that humans are not divinely anointed to govern the rest of nature. Singer's manifesto for militancy in behalf of animals transformed Newkirk from an animal welfarist into an animal rightist. She'd crossed a line that still divides activists today. "All of my life," she says, "I'd been thinking that we should treat animals as kindly as we can within the context of using them. It took someone else to say to me, 'Maybe they're not ours to use at all.' It doesn't matter if you love animals or think they're cute. It's about justice."

Singer's book was the spark that touched off the expansion of the animal-rights movement, according to James M. Jasper, co-author of "The Animal Rights Crusade: The Growth of a Moral Protest," published last year. Before Singer's book, Jasper says, "people might have had those sensibilities, but there wasn't a word for it. Singer's book gave the movement its language." In the early '80s, this awareness brought about the formation of a spate of groups championing the rights of animals just as earlier movements had championed those of women, minorities and gays. Because animal rights "really grabs" people emotionally, Jasper says, it has attracted people who otherwise are not politically active, along with the kind of liberal activists who are also drawn to environmentalism, feminism and the anti-nuclear movement. Today thousands of organizations in the United States look out for animals, but they split roughly between those that support animal welfare and those that support animal rights. To the former, justice means treating animals as humanely as possible while continuing to use them, whether in animal acts or scientific experimentation. Advocates of animals rights seek ultimately to end all use of animals.

PETA is now the largest of the animal-rights organizations. Among animal-welfare groups, the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States claims 1.5 million members; the New York-based American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), 400,000. The Humane Society opposes testing on animals for cosmetics but not for medical research deemed crucial to society, and it does not advocate vegetarianism. Herman Cohen, executive vice president of the ASPCA, says animal-rights organizations claim that animals have legal rights, "but the Constitution doesn't guarantee it. Under U.S law, animals are still property. We feel our role is to protect them."

Bobby Berosini alludes to the difference between rights and welfare when he charges that Newkirk and PETA "don't want cleaner cages; they want no cages." Although he's correct, it's also true that, faced with no alternative, PETA will accept the cleaner cage as a first step. Newkirk is often described as an extremist, but PETA is in the mainstream of animal-rights groups--al-Pacheco says PETA was Newkirk's idea. "It just didn't sound great to me. I had been active in Europe (among other things, sailing aboard the Sea Shepherd, which rammed whaling vessels in the Atlantic), and I thought there were just too many formalities. I thought we should just do things ourselves. But she made a convincing case that Washington needed a vehicle for animals because the current organizations were too conservative."

Even today, Pacheco sounds almost disbelieving about PETA's growth into a large, brawny operation with more than 80 employees after beginning as a scruffy squad of five volunteers working and sleeping on the floor in Newkirk's small Takoma Park, Md., apartment. "The funny thing," he says, "is we never looked to build it. We never did any fund raising. Our entire budget was Ingrid's salary (from her county job). We didn't think in terms of growing and going national."

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